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Meet the Chiefs draft pick: Breeland Speaks Review

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It’s that wonderful time of the year again. Where we can close our eyes and dream dreams of guys fulfilling their potential to the fullest. Where we can let our imaginations soar and wonder what it would look like if a prospect’s best traits were emphasized and greatest weaknesses... well, vanished.

Yep, it’s draft week. And the Chiefs traded up in the second round to select... something called a Breeland Speaks.

Now, the fact that I have no idea who Breeland Speaks is should in no way discourage you. I had no idea who Chris Jones was either. Same with Kareem Hunt. That’s just who I am when it comes to the draft. I don’t pay much attention to college football (if I tried, given the time I spend doing what I currently do for you fine fine folk, Mrs. MNchiefsfan would likely hobble me “Misery” style), and even leading up to the draft I rarely know who anyone is outside of the fine work our own contributors do.

The great thing about that? I can watch a prospect’s film with completely “clean” eyes, without any Kiper or Mayock or whomever else’s thoughts creating bias in any direction. And so, to the film I went to take a look at Breeland Speaks, who (according to Andy Reid) is going to get a shot on the edge and move inside at times as well.

First things first, Breeland is...

(squints)

6’3 and 283 pounds? And they want this dude on the edge? O........K........ Apparently the Chiefs are really all on on this “giant edge” movement. But whatever.

Anyways, about the film. I reviewed about 6-7 games of Breeland, against teams ranging from LSU to Alabama to Mississippi State. The good thing is that there’s plenty of film against him playing high level competition. So that’s something.

The bad thing is that Ole Miss’s coaches used Breeland in really, really odd ways.

Ole Miss had Speaks on the edge, on the interior, off the ball... you name it, he did it. It was really bizarre to watch, because while Speaks is a good athlete at his size, he’s not a complete freak like Justin Houston. And I don’t even want Houston lining up off the ball. It was as though Ole Miss wanted to design their defense around Speaks but didn’t quite know how to make that happen, in all honesty (the truth is undoubtedly much more complicated, but it’s draft season, the time for black-and-white explanations).

The upside of seeing Speaks all over the place is I got a pretty good feel for what his strengths and weaknesses are. Let’s start with the strengths, move to the weaknesses, then try to figure out what he might contribute in 2018 and beyond.

The primary strength I see from Speaks is, um, strength (beautiful language, no?).

Speaks plays with a sort of easy upper-body strength that reminds me of (remember: this is NOT to compare them as overall players) Justin Houston. He’s quite similar in that any time he’s able to reduce an offensive lineman to half a man, he’s capable of simply running right through said lineman at that point.

This allows Speaks to bust through multiple blockers at times, and he’s definitely capable of making guys pay when they don’t mind their footwork. If you don’t stay in front of Speaks, he’s liable to go over you and harass your quarterback. That’s a good thing from the Chiefs’ perspective.

That strength displays itself often in Speaks’ ability to shed blockers, often able to win the handfighting contest just by outmuscling guys and moving them to the side. Again, it’s somewhat similar to what you’ll see from Houston (though Houston’s hand placement is significantly more refined). This is true both as a pass rusher and a run defender.

Speaks has a way of getting free of blockers, and doing so with some efficiency. This is in spite of the fact that I don’t find him to be a particularly technical player. For the most part I found his pass rush moves to be relatively limited and, again, his hand usage against the run wasn’t always impressive. But he was still able to shed with some frequency.

Speaks is also able to combine that strength he possesses with decent athleticism. I watched a great deal of him before I could decide how I felt about him as an athlete, and I landed right where I started: he’s a good athlete for a big guy, but not a great one. He does, however, possess solid balance. Combined with his athleticism, that leads to him rarely being caught off his feet, which is less common than you might imagine.

Because of his great strength, Speaks is able to leverage himself into situations where offensive linemen have to over-commit themselves to not be run over. Because of his above-average athleticism, he’s able to take advantage of those mistakes. This is where you see some really nice snaps from him.

Here, you can see the offensive lineman going after Speaks commit the cardinal sin of getting off-balance, in all likelihood the result of trying to muscle a guy he knows is strong. Speaks sees him coming and deftly steps aside, throwing in a “you go that way” swim for good measure. It allows him to immediately close on the runner, and this play is dead in the water before it can even begin to threaten the defense.

It happens as a pass rusher as well.

Here, you see Speaks has managed to get the lineman close to half a man, which is a situation Speaks consistently wins due to his strength. The lineman attempts to compensate by getting his feet back in front of Speaks, which is probably the right call.

However, Speaks is able to “feel” the shift and spins out of it, creating instant pressure. The RB wasn’t expecting it and doesn’t recover in time to get in front of Speaks, so the quarterback is forced to bail out right rather than go through his reads. The play ends in a sack, and even though it won’t show up in the box score as Speaks’ stat, he was instrumental in what happened.

The bottom line with Speaks as a pass rusher is that when he gets stuff right from a technical standpoint (which isn’t altogether rare like it is with a more raw prospect), good things happen due to his superior strength and solid athleticism. And the result, when it comes together, looks quite tantalizing.

You can absolutely see why Veach would be interested in Speaks as a pass rusher, given the weakness the Chiefs had in that area. He’s strong, pretty fast, can win quickly with hands that (as Kent Swenson said when we were chatting about him) are best characterized as “violent,” and plays with a sizable chip on his shoulder. That’s something the pass rush could use opposite Houston,

Actually, it’s something the pass rush could use next to Chris Jones. In fact, I prefer Speaks on the inside when rushing based off what I’ve seen.

When Speaks lined up on the inside his athletic advantage increased, and he still seemed more than capable of muscling blockers. My hope is that Reid’s comments regarding Speaks moving inside at times weren’t just lip service, and that the actual plan moving forward is to get him out there with Houston/Jones/Ford (or Tanoh).

I’ve covered the positives of Speaks as a run defender in short, but it’s worth stating that he’s often able to hold up at the point of attack against individual blockers, as well as shed them quickly when it’s time to attack the ball carrier.

Overall, Speaks is a guy who can help against the run, and opponents of Ole Miss seemed to recognize it. They spent quite a bit of time running away from where Speaks was or sending double teams his way. Given the sensitivity Chiefs fans have to poor run defense on the edge, that would be a welcome sight.

All right, we’ve talked about the good, but the bad needs to be referenced. Because it’s absolutely there.

(quick note: I had someone tell me that by having more positive gifs than negative gifs, I make a statement about how good/bad the player is. Don’t overthink this stuff: good gifs are more fun, so there are more of them. The meat is the analysis, not the clips meant to provide examples of said analysis. Glad we could talk this through)

Speaks was not dominant as a pass rusher at any point when I watched him. Sure, he was good. But he wasn’t great, and at times he struggled with consistency. There were far too many snaps where Speaks couldn’t beat a single blocker for my taste. For me, that’s concerning if you’re hoping a guy will be highly productive as a rusher at the next level. In general, guys don’t get better or more consistent rushing the passer once they’re facing NFL-level talent every week.

I didn’t often feel like Speaks was pass rushing with a plan. By that, I mean the idea of having a move and a countermove figured out in advance, based on what the opposing lineman was doing (as well as down, distance, formation, previous moves used in that game, and all kinds of other stuff). The best pass rushers in the league set linemen up multiple times. I asked Geoff Schwartz what made Dwight Freeney’s spin so unstoppable, and he said it was because it was used in conjunction with a terrifying first step. Freeney never used the spin right away. He waited until you were comfortable compensating for that speed rush and then... he had you and the QB was on the ground.

That doesn’t seem to be the case with Speaks. Now, obviously I can’t know without asking him... but when I watch Speaks rush, he appears to be consistently attempting to win the handfighting battle with strength. That’s it the vast majority of the time. While he at times shows a rip, a swim, a club, and even some spins, in general he’s often just out there attempting to overpower his opponent. When that doesn’t work, you end up with clips like the one above, or like this one.

Speaks attempts to gain the edge, and the blocker moves quickly to cut him off. Speaks then tries to counter with a club move, which is a great start in terms of having a series of moves prepared. However, when that doesn’t get the blocker off-balance, Speaks follows it up with... well, virtually nothing. Some pushing and movement, but nothing of real substance.

A pass rusher at the next level needs to be thinking multiple steps down the road with each rush. If option A doesn’t work because the lineman uses Counter B, what is move C? For each action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction (what a great quote, someone should use it sometime for physics or something useful). You can’t just expect to win with your athletic gifts. The linemen in the NFL are too big, too strong, too fast, and too technically proficient. So if Speaks wants to be anything more than a pass rusher who has inconsistent flashes, he’s going to have to start rushing with a plan.

And additional issue for Speaks is that I’m not sure he’s got the requisite hip/ankle flexibility to bend around the edge efficiently. We’ve talked about bend here before, repeatedly: it’s simply the ability of a rusher (usually an edge rusher) to drop his shoulders underneath an offensive lineman’s block and shorten his route to the quarterback by bending at an angle and “cornering” towards the QB. Think of Derrick Thomas screaming around the edge practically horizontal. I didn’t see enough of Speaks doing anything approaching this to be comfortable in his ability here. In the NFL, it’s almost impossible to be a consistently effective edge rusher without bend. You get pushed wide around the QB every time.

Another issue I’m concerned about with Speaks is his strength at the point of attack. While I referenced it earlier as something he does well, his consistency isn’t always there. He definitely has strong hands and upper body strength, but he can be moved by individual blockers more often than I’d like. Additionally, double teams absolutely roll him.

Now to be fair, most guys lose to double teams if they aren’t over 300 pounds, but Speaks frequently got absolutely annihilated by them.

This isn’t a fatal flaw, but it does expose a weakness on tape for teams to exploit if Speaks doesn’t learn to more effectively anchor himself and at least make the double teaming linemen earn it a bit more. And it’s indicative of the bigger problem: Speaks is, at times, just a little too easy for offensive linemen to wall off or move aside in the run game. Yes, he’s better than a lot of college linemen I watch (at least against individual OL). However, he loses enough that I wonder what it’ll look like at the next level, where his natural strength advantage won’t be nearly as significant.

Additionally, with regards to run defense, Speaks does not locate the ball as quickly as I’d like. He often drops his eyes and seems caught up in his individual battle with the offensive lineman. The problem with this is that even when you “win,” you lose (What Man Can’t Jump references are the best references), because the runner will likely sprint by you as you frantically twist around searching for him. Good run defenders consistently have their eyes up, even as they engage their blocker or attack their gap.

Overall, I’m unsure what to think of Speaks at this point. He looked solid regardless of the competition, but he never dominated to the point that I would like to see when the team trades up for a guy in the second round. The tools are there, and he’s certainly nowhere near as raw as Tanoh was last year (coming from a much higher level of competition will do that), but there are some questions here for me.

As always, I’ll wait to see how the season plays out. But for now, I’m cautiously optimistic that Speaks will help at times in 2018, but doubtful that the impact will be significant on a consistent basis. I’m guessing he ends up getting a fair amount of playing time and has a few nice games, but overall is what the kids would call “whelming,” at least for next year.

On the other hand, it would shock me if he came in and won a starting job outright. Because again, the tools are there. We’ll just have to see how far they can be unlocked.